By Jarold Johnston, CNM, IBCLC
As a midwife, lactation consultant, and father of seven beautiful breastfed babies, I’m often asked to share my perspectives with new parents. First, let me say, I have found through personal and professional practice that almost everything is hard the first few days or weeks with a new baby — and breastfeeding is no different.
You will do yourself a favor if you prepare for the challenges by learning all you can before your progeny is born. I encourage you to talk to your health care provider, lactation consultant, and especially friends who have successfully breastfed for more than six months. Learning from successful and experienced breastfeeding friends is a good way to get honest, accurate information and avoid the myths that make breastfeeding so very challenging. I warn you to ignore the advice of couples who failed at breastfeeding, as their perspectives, while honest, may not always be accurate.
Before we can talk about your role in breastfeeding, we have to first answer the most fundamental question: Why would anyone want to breastfeed? In the old days, we used to talk about the benefits of breastfeeding and you will still hear some people mention it, but not me. Believe it or not, breastfeeding doesn’t make your baby bigger, stronger, faster, or smarter. Breastfeeding doesn’t make him super-human, it just makes him human.
The problem is that formula is incomplete nutrition — it is missing several essential nutrients that a growing baby needs. Many people become offended at the notion that formula-feeding is substandard nutrition — you will hear them defend their formula-feeding history, but there is no hiding the fact that incomplete nutrition will always affect your long-term health. There are indeed risks to formula-feeding, just like there are risks to eating fastfood every day. There is no doubt about it, inadequate nutrition is inadequate growth. Breastfeeding is perfect nutrition and, as a human mammal, your child is designed to drink human milk made especially for him, by his mother. If you don’t believe me, there are more than 4,000 well-designed clinical trials and hundreds of other sources to prove my point. Honestly, if you don’t think that formula is substandard nutrition, you have been purposely hiding from the truth and nothing I say here will help change your mind.
The only person with more influence over a mother’s breastfeeding success than the father is the baby; and Baby is already on board with this choice — it is all he wants to do. The value that Dad brings to this relationship is often underplayed. When you watch television, read stories, or even read your partner’s precious pregnancy books, you will be hard-pressed to find much useful information on Dad’s job in breastfeeding. Most of the medical and nursing personnel you will meet assume that the father is either unable to help with breastfeeding or simply not interested. All the research available shows that they are wrong. Fathers of the 21st century: I know you are smart, able, and interested in helping to make motherhood and breastfeeding as easy and successful as possible. I am certain that you are not only interested in breastfeeding but that you are uniquely talented at it.
Mothers consistently rate their husband’s support as the most important contributing factor to breastfeeding success. The father is more important than grandmothers and best friends; you are even better than nurses, doctors, and lactation consultants. Together, the mother, father, and baby will work to form a successful breastfeeding family. To enhance your family’s chances of success, everyone has to work together and focus their efforts on successful breastfeeding.
So, let’s talk about each member of the team:
- Mother — Her job is to put the baby “in the kitchen.” That means that Mom has to offer the baby the breast. You will notice that I didn’t tell you that a mother feeds her baby, because she doesn’t. The baby will feed himself. I always recommend, at least for the first few days or weeks, that the mother take off all the baby’s clothes and put his naked chest right up against her bare chest, and once they are “skin-to-skin,” cover the two with a blanket. That way, the baby stays warm and the mother stays modest. With the baby in the kitchen, all you really have to do is wait for him to do his job. If you really feel the need, you can coax him to nurse. You can talk to him, pet him, stroke his face and mouth, and encourage him to feed, but ultimately the baby knows what he’s doing and all you really have to do is be patient.
- Baby — The baby’s job is demanding, but the healthy newborn is well prepared at birth. The baby has to identify the breast, he will wrap his cute little hands around it, put it where he needs it to be, open his mouth very wide and take the entire areola deep into his mouth, down his throat, and suck and swallow until satisfied. The more breast tissue a baby takes in, the easier and more effective feeding will be. Remember, it is the baby’s job to feed himself. He is bright, energetic, and ready to feed himself very soon after birth, usually within the first 48 hours. Don’t rush him — being born is hard work, and he is very tired after the adrenalin of birth wears off. If your healthy baby sleeps from four hours of life until 24 hours of life, he is still a normal newborn. Mom, all you really have to do is hold him close, keep him in the kitchen, and allow him to do what he needs to do. Your healthy newborn will surprise you, I promise.
- Father — The breastfeeding father has the hardest job in the family. I hate to say it, but it is true. But have no fear; I know that you are man enough to breastfeed for your family. Dad, your job is to do a lactation consultant’s job when you take your lovely new family home. When your baby’s mother wakes up at 3 a.m. and needs help getting your progeny to the breast, she won’t ask me or her midwife to help get the baby on — she’ll ask you. When you go home, the spotlight will be on. You are a powerful team member, and your team will have a much better chance to succeed if you are actively involved. So get in there, roll up your sleeves, and breastfeed. Don’t worry, I’ll show you how…in part two of this series. Watch for the second part of this series next week.